Texas Legislature targets regents’ authority over universities

Joshua Fechter

After allegations arose earlier this week that the UT System Board of Regents is micromanaging President William Powers Jr., the Texas Legislature took steps Wednesday to limit regents’ powers over individual institutions within a university system.

State Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo and Senate Higher Education Committee chairman, filed a bill that would limit the reach of university boards of regents into the affairs of individual universities within a system. 

Additionally, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said that he and Texas House Speaker Joe Straus will relaunch a joint oversight committee formed in 2011 to examine regents’ proper governance role over individual institutions. 

Seliger’s bill would amend state law to say that all duties and responsibilities not specifically granted to university systems or governing boards of those university systems fall under the authority of the individual institutions of that system. Nine other senators co-authored the bill, including four members of the Senate Higher Education Committee. 

Seliger said in a statement that the bill aims to preserve institutional autonomy in the same way the 10th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects state sovereignty from overreach by the federal government. 

“It was made clear on Monday that university governance and allegations of micromanagement by the regents is an issue the Senate takes very seriously,” Seliger said.

Meanwhile, legislators will also examine the relationship between boards of regents and university administrations.

Speaking to reporters on the Senate floor, Dewhurst said the Joint Oversight Committee on Higher Education Governance, Excellence and Transparency will be made up of the higher education committees from both houses and additional members to examine regents’ proper governance role in an institution. 

Dewhurst said he believes the job of regents is to advise institutions on policy matters and provide consent to those institutions to move forward with policy, not to manage individual institutions. 

“I don’t pretend to be an authority on the governance of higher education, but that’s the way that our universities, over decades and decades, have been run very effectively,” Dewhurst said.

Dewhurst said he signed a proclamation that will create the committee, which will be co-chaired by Seliger and state Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas who chairs the House Higher Education Committee. The proclamation still requires Straus’ signature. 

The committee will have subpoena power, or the ability to summon witnesses to testify and to procure evidence related to the subject of investigation. 

Dewhurst said complaints he has received have revolved around three regents, not the majority of the board or board chairman Gene Powell.

Dewhurst and Straus formed the joint committee in 2011 after a series of controversial moves by the UT System Board of Regents including hiring a “special adviser” to the board who openly questioned the value of academic research.

The committee held a series of hearings featuring testimony from board chairmen, higher education governance experts and system chancellors from across the state. The committee explored the relationship between regents from across the state with the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank. 

The announcement comes at a tense period between the regents and the UT administration. During the Feb. 13 regents meeting, three regents — Alex Cranberg, Wallace Hall and Brenda Pejovich, each appointed by Gov. Rick Perry in 2011 — intensely questioned Powers on a number of topics. 

In response, the Legislature passed three resolutions Monday honoring Powers. During a ceremony on the Senate floor, Dewhurst offered an emotional defense of Powers and said he received numerous complaints that the regents were subverting Powers’ authority and disrupting the System’s governance structure. 

“I believe in reform, and I know Bill Powers believes in reform,” Dewhurst said Monday. “That’s why I’m particularly troubled when I see UT regents go around this man. I see them try to micromanage the system.”

Printed on Thursday, February 21, 2013 as: Legislature files bill to limit power of regents